Reviewed by Amanda Smith
In A Work in Progress (Aladdin, May 2023), Jarrett Lerner introduces the reader to Will Chambers, a middle school boy who struggles with self-acceptance and negative body-image. A cruel classmate’s ruthless words, slung at Will back in fourth grade, were “tattooed on [his] brain” and set Will on a path of self-loathing and social withdrawal. He slinks in hallways, hides in oversized clothes, and becomes his “own bully” doing “the job better than anyone else possibly could.” Written as Will’s personal notebook, this groundbreaking illustrated novel-in verse takes the reader deep into Will’s emotional pain and physical battle with eating disorders.
The fact that this seldom told story, about body dysmorphia in boys, is presented in a format appealing to its intended audience makes this book a trailblazer. Sparse text, emotion-laden doodles, and swaths of negative space on the pages make this an accessible, though not light, choice for young readers.
However, even children who do not combat negative body-image will find themselves somewhere in the pages of this highly relatable novel that addresses among other teen-tensions, the feeling of not being enough, changing friendships, hiding-in-plain-sight, anger, and shame. Like Will, every teen yearns to be truly seen, to be understood, and to have confidence. Along with Will, all young readers can discover that it is okay to be A Work in Progress.
In his guest blog, Jarrett digs into the challenges keeping writing tight while creating a novel that looks like a fun notebook, with squiggles and doodles, exclamation points and creative typography. (You can find the blog here.)
A Work in Progress shines as a mentor text for diction. Although this book is a departure from Jarret Lerner’s usual humorous style, his language use still honors the age of the narrator, despite the heaviness of the topic. For example, about the inciting incident, Will uses the following metaphor:
“You’ve stepped through
and now the thing
You step through
and then the door
Jarrett’s word-choice for the things Will notices, in his internal rants, and even in the figures of speech Will uses, emulates the way Lerner’s readers experience and talk about their world. Read your writing out loud. Do your word-choice and phrasing reflect your readers’ world?
Visit Jarrett’s website to learn more about his story and books.
Review by Kristi Mahoney
Walter Had a Best Friend (Beach Lane Books, October 2022), by author Deborah Underwood and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier is a story of friendship that sometimes drifts apart.
Walter and Xavier are best friends who do everything together. Until slowly, quietly, they’re not. As Xavier spends more time with new friend Penelope, Walter is left with a big hole in his heart where Xavier used to be. It’s not until a sunny day beckons Walter to get up and back out into the world, that he finds just the thing to make his heart full again. Ruzzier’s scenes set in soft pastels perfectly complement the story, capturing the weight of moments where emotions are heavy but words are purposely spare.
Walter Had a Best Friend is an important SEL book showing that friendship can change and sometimes end. But slowly, quietly…it will be okay.
There are a number of ways we can use Underwood’s techniques as a mentor text for our own writing.
To truly capture the power of this story, Underwood demonstrates extremely effective pacing. Using a restraint with words, the author opts for sparse, well-chosen text as well as a few repetitive words/phrases that are packed with emotion to make a big impact. Her pacing encourages the reader to slow down and process the story as it unfolds: the fading friendship, the aftermath, and ultimately…the hope that lies ahead.
Underwood’s sparse text is a reminder of the power that can be infused into picture books if authors leave room for the illustrator. Within this book, there are spreads that only feature one or two words. But these words combined with the emotional art carry more weight than a whole paragraph of explanation.
Although this story is packed with heart, it’s a different kind that’s not prevalent in picture books —at times more raw and relatable than warm and fuzzy. Yet it ends with the important nugget every picture book needs —a ray of hope. There is a saying that you don’t always remember what someone says, but you’ll always remember how they made you feel. Long after reading Walter Had a Best Friend, I remember the feeling it evoked. I remember —the heart. Isn’t that what we all strive for as writers?
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.